Cornell’s Hostility to Free Speech Hits a New Peak

By on September 29, 2008

The ongoing hostility to dissenting views at Cornell never fails to surprise.

Most often manifested as hostility towards conservative newspapers on campus, censorship once again reared its ugly head yesterday as Cornell’s Student Assembly passed a resolution, which, according to the Cornell Sun campus newspaper, criticized The Cornell Review (a conservative student newspaper) for causing "alienation and intimidation." What’s more, the resolution known as "Resolution 6" officially "encouraged the Office of the Dean of Students to work with the S.A. to revise the Campus Code of Conduct to prevent further ‘hateful terminology.’"

The problem appears to have stemmed from the orientation issue of The Cornell Review, in which two articles that offended some at Cornell appeared. The Cornell Sun described their contents in a September 2 article covering a protest against the paper:

Raza Hoda ’11, the treasurer of The Review, said people were angry about a satirical piece he wrote about Muslims in the United Kingdom, as well as another piece by Eric Shive ’07, the former editor in chief of the Cornell American, which has since merged with The Review.

Shive’s piece, which mentioned "angry minorities" and alluded to self-segregation in program houses, was included with Hoda’s in The Review’s freshman issue that combines several old articles into an (sic) single issue.

Hoda, who mentioned that he himself is Muslim, said that his piece was meant to be funny and satirical and said that when he showed the full article to some of the angry people reading excerpts on the protesters’ quartercards, they agreed that it was humorous.                                              

At our request, The Cornell Review e-mailed us a PDF of the issue in question. For what it’s worth, the articles were clearly intended to be humorous one is illustrated with a picture of a two-headed Osama Bin Laden. Their content, though, angered some students enough that, rather than simply oppose speech they found offensive with more speech, they turned to the Student Assembly to attempt to punish the Review by prohibiting the newspaper from using Cornell’s name. A September 19 Cornell Sun article discusses the controversy:

The Cornell Review controversy over printing an article about campus "ghettos," "bitter minorities" and affirmative action became even more pronounced yesterday when students proposed a resolution to the Student Assembly to ban the use of the Cornell name by the biweekly journal’s title.

The article, "What to Expect: The Angry Minority," said students in program houses only at Cornell because of affirmative action and scholarships complain about brutal oppression from "whitey."

Students Nikhil Kumar ’11, minority representative-at-large, and Nicole Rivera ’09, president of the Minority Business Student Association, brought the resolution to the table.

"As a student here at Cornell, I find this article extremely offensive, ignorant and completely inconsistent to Cornell’s values … I can’t believe a Cornell publication has the audacity to write articles full of hate. It’s an embarrassment for our community," said Rivera. "This is not an issue of freedom of speech; this is an issue of respect for Cornell’s brand and for students at Cornell."

Not an issue of freedom of speech? Really? What is it then? And why should the Student Assembly be in the business of regulating the content of independent organizations like The Cornell Review that receive no funding at all from the university? Here’s the reason given:

Cornell’s statement of diversity, "Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds," adopted by the S.A. in 1999, provided the basis of the argument brought forth by Kumar and Rivera. The statement was passed to support "a more diverse and inclusive campus."

As elected student leaders, we have a responsibility because we represent all undergraduates to use our voices to change Cornell and our image in order to reflect our values," Kumar said.

This is simply amazing, in a horrifying sort of way. Students are trying to use a statement intended to ensure "a more diverse and inclusive campus" as a way to punish or silence a newspaper with dissenting views, on the grounds that the newspaper’s views represent "hate." "Hate," like "offensiveness" or "alienation and intimidation," is largely in the eye of the beholder and in a free society, none of these feelings (with the exception of true intimidation, which is probably impossible to perform in the pages of a newspaper) strip a publication of its right to freedom of the press.

Considering Cornell part of a free society, though, might be a stretch. In a letter to the Cornell Sun, a group of Review alums detail some of the profound abuses of free speech their publication has suffered over the last 12 years:

In 1995, students repeatedly stole and dumped hundreds of Cornell Reviews to prevent students from reading them. In 1997, residents from Cornell’s racially segregated dormitory, Ujamaa Residential College, burned hundreds of copies of The Cornell Review at a Nuremberg-style rally. In 1999, there was a student movement to defund the newspaper because of an "insensitive" political cartoon. In 2001, the administration admonished The Cornell Review for bringing Ann Coulter ’85 to campus to speak about the Confederate Flag. (At her speech, Coulter was pelted with oranges by members of the Hispanic separatist group MEChA.) In 2004 2005, the administration attempted to shut down The Cornell American, a cousin conservative paper, for opposing racial preferences.

Cornell is in desperate need of some sort of lesson on the meaning of freedom of expression in general, with specific attention to why using the student government to censor is a particularly bad idea. Since one does not seem to be forthcoming, I’ll briefly give it a try.

Some principles are important enough that they shouldn’t be put up to a simple majority vote. Freedom of speech and of the press are two such principles. Majorities in a democracy are fickle things; one day, one group finds itself in power, the next, it could be their most determined opponents. This is dangerous to everyone, but most of all to minority groups, be they racial, ethnic, ideological, or otherwise. Today at Cornell, Nikhil Kumar, a minority representative-at-large, and Nicole Rivera, the president of the Minority Business Student Association, are leading the charge for censorship, and appear to have gained a majority of the votes for their cause. Yet there is no guarantee that this will continue into the future. What if, due to an ideological shift in the Student Assembly, the allies of The Cornell Review are in control next year? Would Kumar and Rivera agree that it would then be appropriate for the Review to take steps to proscribe their expressive rights? After all, the principle they have established is that free speech is to be doled out only to those with political power how can they credibly complain when the pendulum swings against them?

Of course, the framers of our Constitution were wiser than that. Indeed, that’s why the Constitution was ratified only with the understanding that it would also include a Bill of Rights and free speech and freedom of the press are listed among the first of these critical rights. The beauty of free speech is that it serves as the ultimate protection of minority viewpoints, ensuring that no matter the political tide, all people will be allowed to speak their minds.

Cornell is a private university. If it wishes to elevate the wisdom of Nikhil Kumar, Nicole Rivera, and the 2008 2009 Cornell Student Assembly above that of Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and the Constitutional Convention, that is of course its right. But it cannot thereafter claim that it puts any meaningful value on freedom of expression or the fundamental values of liberty that characterize a free society and it must live with the consequences of an impoverished public discourse and a chilling effect on free speech that impedes the quest for knowledge and truth rather than advances it.

Schools: Cornell University